The Riverdale history program encourages students to make sense of the dynamics that have shaped the contemporary global system and prepares them to become rational, knowledgeable, and humane democratic citizens and social actors, capable of effectively and ethically responding to the national and global challenges of the modern world.
The ninth- and tenth-grade sequence provides an age-appropriate introduction to the development of the contemporary global capitalist world-system. In the 11th and 12th grades, students take the required Constructing America and ILS courses but also have the option of choosing from a wide array of electives. Our thematic approach to electives and to Constructing America helps students develop the important skill of taking complex factual information and filtering it through an appropriate analytical lens. Interdisciplinary team-teaching allows faculty to model discourse and for students to see that reasonable, thinking, educated adults often disagree. Students leave Riverdale with a nuanced understanding of the most important ways in which economic, political, cultural, and social developments in different parts of the globe have become interdependent, and with the ways in which past events have shaped and continue to shape their present-day realities. We hope that Riverdale graduates will remember to think historically; we want them to continue to ask “How did things come to be this way?” These kinds of questions prompt them to think about their own position in the world: “How can I make a difference for the good?”
Please select below for either required or elective courses.
History I: Emergence of Modern Society
The first half of the department’s two-year required sequence focuses on the history of the world system from its beginnings in the 15th century until the early 19th century. The course commences with an overview of the world system at the dawn of the 21st century, using a case study of Wal-Mart as a lens into the operations of a modern multinational corporation. There is then a brief study of non-capitalist social formations in North America on the eve of European expansion, Imperial China, and medieval Europe. The course then examines the break-up of European feudalism, the emergence of a market society, and the evolution of the modern state system; mercantilism, colonialism, and the creation of a Eurocentric world system; the new, universalistic understandings of human nature, human society, and human history generated by the European core of this world system; and the institutional expression of these understandings established by the 18th-century revolutions in the United States and France.
History II: Making of the Global Order
The second half of the department’s two-year required sequence focuses on the history of the modern world system from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. The course starts by investigating the industrial capitalist society that emerged in Britain during the first half of the 19th century. It then examines the new ideologies of 19th-century Europe: liberalism, social Darwinism, and nationalism. Students study the emergence of capitalist modes of industrial production in Europe and the United States and the various ways in which structural changes were assimilated and legitimated. An extended analysis of the dynamics and ideology of late-19th- and early-20th-century imperialism is followed by an investigation of the decline of British world hegemony, the struggle for mastery in the world system (i.e., World War I and World War II), the Cold War, and the emergence of the American imperium. The course also focuses on socialist and nationalist movements and on the experience of newly industrializing nations of Asia. It concludes with another look at the contemporary world, its threats and promises.
An interdisciplinary course, team-taught by teachers from the history and English departments, that introduces juniors to the history of American civilization and culture. The focus is on the ways in which Americans have—from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Gulf War and beyond—asserted the special nature of American society even while they have contested and interrogated the meaning of such “exceptionalism.” The course seeks to investigate and understand the various modes through which Americans have explored a sense of American uniqueness by examining a variety of political and literary genres: treatises, essays, letters, speeches, sermons, diaries, fiction, and poetry. It examines political texts—e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Letter from a Birmingham Jail—from a literary as well as a historical perspective, with attention to their uses of rhetoric and literary devices. And it likewise examines literary texts—e.g., the poetry of Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the prose of Herman Melville and William Faulkner—from a sociological as well as a rhetorical-aesthetic perspective, with attention to their capacity to illuminate moments in the nation’s political, and intellectual transformation.
Crucial questions investigated include: How have Americans defined national identity? How have they contested fixed and stable understandings of “the American” and sought to replace them with plural and shifting identifications? How has the national literature enunciated the evolving relationship between creativity and politics, entertainment and education? How can narrative modes be read as reflections of American experiences? How have Americans imagined and represented the defining differences between American literature, sensibility, landscape, and humor and those of Europe and the rest of the world? How have philosophers and poets, politicians and journalists, elite and dispossessed classes conceived of America as a place of particular opportunity, providence, and oppression? How have the actual experiences of various categories of Americans mirrored and/or contradicted these conceptions?
Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS)
ILS, a required course for seniors, is a multidisciplinary examination of questions of fundamental human importance. The primary goal is to develop students' critical thinking through close reading of primary sources, discussion-based learning, and analytical writing. During the first twenty weeks of the course, students read works in a variety of disciplines to explore two essential questions that have been central to human civilization since its beginnings and that continue to engage contemporary thinkers. One is an ontological question, "who or what are we as human beings?" and the other a moral and political question, "how ought we to live and conduct our lives?" These two questions, ("Self" and "Virtue" for short) provide the framework for detailed study and discussion of specific works and are intended to help students to formulate good questions of their own within these fields of discourse. The questions are examined through the lenses of different disciplines, such as Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology to create a multidisciplinary perspective. Students study a set of core texts in common along with choices introduced by individual instructors. Among the core texts are Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz," Plato’s "Meno," Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics," the anonymous Buddhist text "The Questions of King Milinda," Montaigne's "On Repenting," selections from the writings of Nietzsche, Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents," W. E. B. DuBois's "The Souls of Black Folk" (on double consciousness), de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness," and Kenzaburo Oe’s 1964 novel "A Personal Matter." In addition, instructors offer a variety of elective texts including extracts from Homer’s "Iliad," Saint Augustine's "Confessions," Rousseau's "Reveries of the Solitary Walker," Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals," Borges' "Everything and Nothing," Horney's "New Ways in Psychoanalysis," Geertz's "From the Native's Point of View," Gopnik's "The Philosophical Baby," and Truffaut's film, "L'Enfant Sauvage." Two five-week units follow, dealing with "Human Beings and the Environment" and "Human Beings and Society." In these units, students will examine major issues that they will have to confront in their future careers. This year the focus of these units will be climate change and social justice, using Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" and Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" as core texts. The intention is that students should draw upon the theoretical understanding they have developed in "Self" and "Virtue" to explore these topics. These units will allow students to make connections between the theoretical work of the first part of the course and their own questions concerning how we should act in tackling real-world questions. The course ends with a short elective unit in which each of the eight members of the ILS faculty will offer students different choices, such as in-depth reading and discussion of a major and substantial novel, the history of science, and opportunities for off-campus experiential learning. ILS assessment includes frequent impromptu writing, student-directed discussions and presentations to classmates, and the writing of interdisciplinary analytical papers.
This elective is open to juniors and seniors. Students may take the course for either semester or both. The course is a chronological study of selected topics in the history of art from ancient times to the present. We will examine the art of Western Europe, China, Japan, India, central Africa, central and South America, and Islam, focusing on architecture, painting, and sculpture. Other media such as drawing, photography, and digital art will receive attention, too. Students will learn to recognize and articulate the following characteristics of individual works of art: visual composition and style, historical and religious context, content, medium, iconography, and patronage. Assignments will include analytical essays, research essays, and slide-illustrated presentations. Students will be expected to visit New York City museums on their own.
First Semester Topics: Prehistory through the Middle Ages.
Second Semester Topics: The Renaissance to the Present.
The Cold War
This course will be a survey of the Cold War. We will begin in the early years of the Cold War immediately following the Second World War by discussing the factors that contributed to the development of the divisions. Our readings and class discussions will address political history as well as the experience of individuals in both blocs. For example, we will explore Soviet rhetoric alongside lived experience. As we move forward in time, we will consider the ramifications of the Cold War for decolonization, the development of a non-aligned movement, and social movements. In addition to exploring the usefulness of the Cold War as a framework for thinking about political transformations around the globe, we will look at the role that cultural products played. As we move in the 1980s and 1990s, we will consider the factors that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and students will explore the long-term effects of the Cold War for contemporary politics.
Constitutional Law and the American Political System
This course will focus on modern constitutional issues and the political processes through which they are addressed. Every year litigants appeal approximately 8,000 cases to the Supreme Court, but fewer than 100 are heard. Who sets the agenda for the Court? What social and political circumstances affect a case’s likelihood of review? How sacred is precedent in our common law system? To what extent do the justices allow “original intent,” political ideology, legislative history, international law, and public opinion to shape its decisions? Is it possible for judges to be impartial arbiters of the law, immune to the political realities that surround them? In addition to learning about the procedures and practices of the Court, students will examine closely the relevant case law through which justices frame consideration of today’s most pressing civil rights and balance-of-power questions. Every member of the class will have the opportunity to research and lead a discussion on a major question either recently decided or currently under consideration by the Court.
Family, Gender, and Sexuality in America
Film and American Society: the 1970s
The 1970s were a tumultuous decade, marked by the decline of New Deal-Great Society liberalism; the rise of a new American conservative discourse; and the restructuring of American capitalism. During the 1970s Americans began to question the premises of American exceptionalism: the presumption of a constantly rising standard of living; the inevitability of American global pre-eminence; the eternal virtues of American democracy. Though it was a time when progressive social movements (feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism) began to make their mark on American culture, it was, at the same time, a period of disillusionment, cynicism and political reaction. Americans today associate it with humiliation in Vietnam, the drama of Watergate, deindustrialization and urban crisis and the debilitating effects of inflation.
Yet the 1970s also saw an extraordinary efflorescence of American cinema. Frequently referred to as Hollywoodʼs “Last Golden Age,” the decade is associated with classic films like "The Long Goodbye" and "Nashville" (Robert Altman), "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" (Woody Allen), "The Godfather," "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola), "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars" (George Lucas), "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese), "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Spielberg), along with other distinguished work by directors like Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, John Cassavetes, Michael Cimino, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Lumet, Roman Polanskli and many others.
This course will seek to investigate and make sense of the 1970s by examining its political-economic-cultural history as it was refracted, shaped and distorted by the American cinema of the period. Students will be asked to read widely and intensively in the history of the period, as well as to closely examine a range of American films, released between 1970-1979.
This course introduces students to the world of contemporary geopolitics and military operations. Beginning with a philosophical overview of some major works on the ‘art’ of war and military ‘science’, we will explore the logic and means of conflict. These philosophical readings will move, historically, to introduce students to the rationale, strategy, and execution of contemporary of military operations.
We will shift from theories about conflict to its practice, grounding the course historically in the aftermath of the Great War. Specifically we will explore two dimensions of post-war diplomacy as triggers for the coming century of conflict—the creation of Ukraine, and, in the holy land, the new map.
World maps redrawn, the course focuses on geopolitical strategies implemented and military actions undertaken by the United States, over the last century, to control resources and minds. Using case studies to do so, we will trace the growing power and budget of the National Security State.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States stood alone as a superpower—another unique moment. In the context of a superpower at its zenith, we will explore the military doctrine that emerges. “9/11 changed everything,” the saying goes. We’ll discuss why and how principally through an examination of the wars that have followed.
The Global 1960s
In this course we examine the vivid and tumultuous social, political, and cultural movements of the 1960s across the globe. We begin with liberation movements of the 1950s (decolonization in Africa and Asia, nationalist revolution in Cuba, and the black freedom movement in the U.S.) in the context of the deepening Cold War. These movements not only changed the political contours of the globe but also sparked social movements in other countries, first in support of decolonization and then directed against the structures of authority in their own societies.
Topics we explore in depth include the Vietnam Wars; student movements of Japan, the U.S., Western Europe, and Mexico; the development of feminism and other social movements; the rise of countercultures; Czech challenges to Soviet authority; and the cataclysmic events of 1968 across the world.
Our sources include scholarly articles, memoirs, speeches and essays, films, music, photos, stories, and other primary sources. Students write regularly in various formats (informal impromptu writing, online journal entries, brief analytical essays) and are expected to participate actively in each class session. Students have an opportunity to do brief research forays into areas of personal interest.
Mass Media and Popular Culture
A Political Earthquake? The 2016 American Presidential Election
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election came as a surprise to pollsters, pundits and, indeed, to most Americans. How did it happen? What did it signify? What does it mean for the American political system?
This course will explore these, and other, controversial and important questions. It will investigate the various economic, political, sociological, psychological and cultural sources of the Trump phenomenon and analyze the first year of the Trump administration. While attending to the immediate factors relevant to the Trump candidacy and election (the nature of the Republican primaries, the weaknesses of the Clinton candidacy, the electoral college system etc.) its primary focus will be on the political antecedents and appeals of ‘Trumpism’ and on the extent to which the Trump administration in practice represents a radical departure from and/or a direct challenge to American political precedents and norms.
The course will also examine the Trump phenomenon as a manifestation of an emergent international phenomenon and will compare/contrast it with similar contemporary political expressions in Europe.
In addition to paying close attention to the policies, pronouncements, and behavior of the Trump administration during its first year in office, students will read about a wide range of subjects germane to the genesis of the Trump phenomenon: e.g., the evolution of the American Right and of American liberalism; the re-structuring of the global economy; evolving U.S. attitudes to race, nationality, and gender; the changing demographics of American society; the impact of reality television and social media on American politics; the legacies of 9/11, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the economic crisis of 2008; immigration and refugees; etcetera.
Senior Seminar: Israel/Palestine
An investigation of the tortuous history of Israel/Palestine from the emergence of the Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements during the late 19th/early 20th centuries up until the present day.
Readings and discussions will closely and systematically examine the various issues in dispute, the radically discordant discourses of Zionist and of Palestinian movements, and the rival historiographic interpretations which have contributed to shaping understandings of the conflict.
The course will combine readings about the history of the last 150 years or so with materials describing and evoking the contemporary situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Students will be expected to read diligently and carefully, to keep a journal charting their reactions to the course readings, and to contribute actively and helpfully to classroom discussions. Differences of opinion and informed disputation are welcomed and encouraged, even while students are expected and required to test and challenge their pre-existing assumptions and beliefs and remain open to new understandings of the various issues.
Urban Studies: Comparative Cities
This one-semester elective will examine historical and contemporary issues in urban planning, governance, and life. This comparative and interdisciplinary course will use New York City as our frame and other cities (in the United States and abroad) as case studies. Students will be asked to think critically about how the natural environment, policy decisions, immigration, and corporate interests have shaped the neighborhoods of New York City and then compare New York’s unique history and experiences with those of other urban landscapes.
Students will be asked to think about how cities function and to begin working to consciously “read” and examine the built environment in which we all live and study. The class will take field trips to different neighborhoods and institutions in the city. And as a part of their homework, students will be asked to complete at least a few independent field trips either with each other or with their families. This class will challenge students to be more engaged citizens of New York City.
The course will begin with an overview of the history of 19th and 20th century urban planning in the United States and Europe. Students will learn about the Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movements, Progressive Era Reform, Modernism, New Urbanism, and the variety of contemporary issues facing urban planners, governmental officials and residents of urban areas. Students will gain an introduction to the study of urban studies and to the interdisciplinary approaches (sociological/historical/
The course will then be grouped around various issues facing contemporary cities, including: public space/parks, infrastructure (waste, energy, transportation), environmental justice, immigration and immigrant neighborhoods, affordable housing, and zoning. The course will culminate in an independent research project.
Whitewashing Africa: Writing Seminar on African History
This elective consists of two parts, targeted towards a specific end--the production of a serious analytical paper that makes substantial use of work done in class and independent research conducted outside of it.
During the first half of the course, before Spring Break, we will read and discuss several canonical works of African history, focusing on Afrocentrism and featuring a close reading Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. For the second part of the course, students, working in close coordination with the library staff and each other, will meticulously develop a question of historical interest through the writing process into a sophisticated social analysis that aims to answer it. We will have fun—meetings will be laid back, field trips several, and music an essential part of the course. But semester credit is contingent upon the submission of a research paper. This course is open to all Juniors and Seniors.